Understanding Individual Differences in University Undergraduates: A Learner Needs Segmentation Approach

Innovative Higher Education | Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring 2001

By Gayla Rogers, Donna Finley, and Theresa Kline


The purpose of this study was to use the marketing concept of segmentation in a post-secondary context in order to gain a better understanding of undergraduate students. Most post-secondary institutions segment their learners in traditional ways based on demographic characte1;stics such as age, year of program, gender, special needs, and grade point average. The establishment of identifiable learner-based segments is a unique, and arguably a critical, first step which can be of benefit to institutions as they develop recruitment strategies and academic programs that best serve the needs of their unique mix of undergraduate learners.

Tools such as market segmentation are commonly used in the mar­ keting field but have not been applied extensively in higher education. The two studies described in this paper demonstrated how we applied the aspect of market segmentation theory and research to a university setting. Specifically, segmentation divides a population into groups of people who perceive and respond in similar ways. It can be used to bet­ter understand the needs, motivations and defining characteristics of these groups.

There are several benefits of segmentation. It helps an organization focus its energy on those segments of the market it can most effectively serve; assists an organization in understanding these needs and oppor­tunities not currently being addressed; and can further guide the design and development of programs, services, and processes to meet specific needs. Segmentation allows an organization to know more about whom it serves, and thus it can monitor the evolving nature of the various segments it serves and make informed decisions. For example, seg­mentation in higher education settings reveals that mature, continuous learners who are in the workplace by day require programs and services delivered on evenings and weekends, while younger full-time students direct from high school seek a full-time, campus-based life.

Most post-secondary institutions segment their learners in tradi­tional ways based on demographic characteristics such as age, year of program, gender, special needs, and grade point average (GPA). How­ever, these classifications are no longer sufficient for designing programs and services as they make assumptions about individual differences within these larger groups. For example, a popular recruitment ap­proach is to target prospective students solely on the basis of GPA, but underlying motivations are ignored.